Sparks is co-owner of Unclaimed Storage, a Guntersville business that sells the stuff left unattended in mini-storage facilities. His clients get rock-bottom prices on the former possessions of people who couldn't, or wouldn't, pay their rent.
"People leave dishes, tables, chairs, couches, dressers, magazines," he said. "We don't sell the clothes, or the toys."
A bill sponsored by Rep. Koven L. Brown, R-Jacksonville, could make life a little easier for Sparks — and for the storage-facility owners who sell to him. Brown's bill would shorten the time it takes the owner of a self-storage facility to put a lien on the property of a renter who doesn't pay up.
Under current law, if someone doesn't pay the rent on a self-storage facility, the owner of the facility has to wait 30 days before taking action. The owner has to let the renter know via certified mail that his or her possessions can be sold — and can auction them off 30 days later, if the rent isn't paid.
Brown's bill would shorten the initial 30-day wait to 15 days, and it would allow owners to inform delinquent renters by email. Advertisements for the auction, now done in newspapers, could be done online if the bill passes.
Brown said a lobbyist for the Alabama Self-Storage Association approached him with the idea for the legislation.
"It sounded like a good way to help small business," he said. "Most of the people in this business are small, local businesspeople."
Storage auctions were once considered a small, quirky niche of the economy. Collectors and second-hand-store owners would buy the contents of abandoned storage lockers, taking a chance that something inside would be valuable. The trade has gone mainstream with the spread of reality shows like A&E’s "Storage Wars," a popular program that follows auctioneers to storage auctions.
But there's no real money in it, at least for the owners of storage facilities, local business owners say.
"It's never a situation where you're making money," said Stan Bush, owner of Oxford Secure Storage, a 250-unit storage facility on Mattison Road in Oxford.
After missing out on rent, advertising in the newspaper and getting a less-than-stellar bid at auction, he said, the owner rarely breaks even.
It might be easier for owners to cut their losses if they gave only the legally required Ê30-day notice, Bush said. That's hard to do.
"For anybody with a conscience, this is something you don't want to to," he said. "I try to work with them beyond the 30 days, see if maybe they can pay half."
People who aren't making rent in storage facilities are usually facing hard times, said Tom Keith, consumer advocate for Legal Services Alabama, a Huntsville nonprofit that provides legal representation for people in poverty.
"Evicted people have a hard time getting another house," he said, noting that a storage facility may be the last place someone is able to keep their possessions.
Keith didn't take a position on the bill itself, saying his organization was prohibited from lobbying. He said legal cases over storage facilities were not common for his organization, though they do happen.
Bush said local owners will usually work with a delinquent renter who wants to get material out of storage. The point, he said, is to empty the unit and collect rent again.
Sparks, the Guntersville store owner, takes a different tack. He has contracts with eight or nine storage companies to cart away delinquent customers' stuff. He handles the notifications.
"I get it done as soon as it comes around," he said.
Local storage facility owners said they hadn't heard of Brown's bill. But Brent Fields, chief operating officer of Cool Box Storage in Birmingham, had. He's a member of, and organizer for, the Alabama Self-Storage Association, which lobbied for the bill.
"We're operating by payphone rules in a cell phone world," he said.
He said the switch to email notifications and online auction advertisements would save money, and would be more likely to reach clients.
"It's the same transition newspapers are making," he said. "They're putting everything online."
Brown's bill awaits discussion in a House committee. If approved, it will go on to a vote in the full House.
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.